Metric system

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Four metric measuring devices: a tape measure in centimetres, a thermometer in degrees Celsius, a kilogram mass and a multimeter that measures potential in volts, current in amperes and resistance in ohms FourMetricInstruments.JPG
Four metric measuring devices: a tape measure in centimetres, a thermometer in degrees Celsius, a kilogram mass and a multimeter that measures potential in volts, current in amperes and resistance in ohms

A metric system is a system of measurement that succeeded the decimalised system based on the metre introduced in France in the 1790s. The historical development of these systems culminated in the definition of the International System of Units (SI), under the oversight of an international standards body.

Contents

The historical evolution of metric systems has resulted in the recognition of several principles. Each of the fundamental dimensions of nature is expressed by a single base unit of measure. The definition of base units has increasingly been realised from natural principles, rather than by copies of physical artefacts. For quantities derived from the fundamental base units of the system, units derived from the base units are used–e.g., the square metre is the derived unit for area, a quantity derived from length. These derived units are coherent, which means that they involve only products of powers of the base units, without empirical factors. For any given quantity whose unit has a special name and symbol, an extended set of smaller and larger units is defined that are related in a systematic system of factors of powers of ten. The unit of time should be the second; the unit of length should be either the metre or a decimal multiple of it; and the unit of mass should be the gram or a decimal multiple of it.

Metric systems have evolved since the 1790s, as science and technology have evolved, in providing a single universal measuring system. Before and in addition to the SI, some other examples of metric systems are the following: the MKS system of units and the MKSA systems, which are the direct forerunners of the SI; the centimetre–gram–second (CGS) system and its subtypes, the CGS electrostatic (cgs-esu) system, the CGS electromagnetic (cgs-emu) system, and their still-popular blend, the Gaussian system; the metre–tonne–second (MTS) system; and the gravitational metric systems, which can be based on either the metre or the centimetre, and either the gram(-force) or the kilogram(-force).

Background

Pavillon de Breteuil, Saint-Cloud, France, the home of the metric system since 1875 BIPM courtyard.jpg
Pavillon de Breteuil, Saint-Cloud, France, the home of the metric system since 1875

The French revolution (1789–99) provided an opportunity for the French to reform their unwieldy and archaic system of many local weights and measures. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand championed a new system based on natural units, proposing to the French National Assembly in 1790 that such a system be developed. Talleyrand had ambitions that a new natural and standardised system would be embraced worldwide, and was keen to involve other countries in its development. Great Britain ignored invitations to co-operate, so the French Academy of Sciences decided in 1791 to go it alone and they set up a commission for the purpose. The commission decided that the standard of length should be based on the size of the Earth. They defined that length to be the 'metre' and its length as one ten-millionth of the length of a quadrant on the Earth's surface from the equator to the north pole. In 1799, after the length of that quadrant had been surveyed, the new system was launched in France. [1] :145–149

The units of the metric system, originally taken from observable features of nature, are now defined by seven physical constants being given exact numerical values in terms of the units. In the modern form of the International System of Units (SI), the seven base units are: metre for length, kilogram for mass, second for time, ampere for electric current, kelvin for temperature, candela for luminous intensity and mole for amount of substance. These, together with their derived units, can measure any physical quantity. Derived units may have their own unit name, such as the watt (J/s) and lux (cd/m2), or may just be expressed as combinations of base units, such as velocity (m/s) and acceleration (m/s2). [2]

The metric system was designed to have properties that make it easy to use and widely applicable, including units based on the natural world, decimal ratios, prefixes for multiples and sub-multiples, and a structure of base and derived units. It is also a coherent system, which means that its units do not introduce conversion factors not already present in equations relating quantities. It has a property called rationalisation that eliminates certain constants of proportionality in equations of physics.

The metric system is extensible, and new derived units are defined as needed in fields such as radiology and chemistry. For example, the katal, a derived unit for catalytic activity equivalent to a one mole per second (1 mol/s), was added in 1999.

Principles

Although the metric system has changed and developed since its inception, its basic concepts have hardly changed. Designed for transnational use, it consisted of a basic set of units of measurement, now known as base units. Derived units were built up from the base units using logical rather than empirical relationships while multiples and submultiples of both base and derived units were decimal-based and identified by a standard set of prefixes.

Realisation

The metre was originally defined to be one ten millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator through Paris. Kilometre definition.svg
The metre was originally defined to be one ten millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator through Paris.

The base units used in a measurement system must be realisable. Each of the definitions of the base units in the SI is accompanied by a defined mise en pratique [practical realisation] that describes in detail at least one way in which the base unit can be measured. [4] Where possible, definitions of the base units were developed so that any laboratory equipped with proper instruments would be able to realise a standard without reliance on an artefact held by another country. In practice, such realisation is done under the auspices of a mutual acceptance arrangement. [5]

In the SI, the standard metre is defined as exactly 1/299,792,458 of the distance that light travels in a second. The realisation of the metre depends in turn on precise realisation of the second. There are both astronomical observation methods and laboratory measurement methods that are used to realise units of the standard metre. Because the speed of light is now exactly defined in terms of the metre, more precise measurement of the speed of light does not result in a more accurate figure for its velocity in standard units, but rather a more accurate definition of the metre. The accuracy of the measured speed of light is considered to be within 1 m/s, and the realisation of the metre is within about 3 parts in 1,000,000,000, or a proportion of 0.3x10−8:1.

The kilogram was originally defined as the mass of a man-made artefact of platinum-iridium held in a laboratory in France, until the new definition was introduced in May 2019. Replicas made in 1879 at the time of the artefact's fabrication and distributed to signatories of the Metre Convention serve as de facto standards of mass in those countries. Additional replicas have been fabricated since as additional countries have joined the convention. The replicas were subject to periodic validation by comparison to the original, called the IPK. It became apparent that either the IPK or the replicas or both were deteriorating, and are no longer comparable: they had diverged by 50 μg since fabrication, so figuratively, the accuracy of the kilogram was no better than 5 parts in a hundred million or a proportion of 5x10−8:1. The accepted redefinition of SI base units replaced the IPK with an exact definition of the Planck constant, which defines the kilogram in terms of the second and metre.

Base and derived unit structure

The metric system base units were originally adopted because they represented fundamental orthogonal dimensions of measurement corresponding to how we perceive nature: a spatial dimension, a time dimension, one for inertia, and later, a more subtle one for the dimension of an "invisible substance" known as electricity or more generally, electromagnetism. One and only one unit in each of these dimensions was defined, unlike older systems where multiple perceptual quantities with the same dimension were prevalent, like inches, feet and yards or ounces, pounds and tons. Units for other quantities like area and volume, which are also spatial dimensional quantities, were derived from the fundamental ones by logical relationships, so that a unit of square area for example, was the unit of length squared.

Many derived units were already in use before and during the time the metric system evolved, because they represented convenient abstractions of whatever base units were defined for the system, especially in the sciences. So analogous units were scaled in terms of the units of the newly established metric system, and their names adopted into the system. Many of these were associated with electromagnetism. Other perceptual units, like volume, which were not defined in terms of base units, were incorporated into the system with definitions in the metric base units, so that the system remained simple. It grew in number of units, but the system retained a uniform structure.

Decimal ratios

Some customary systems of weights and measures had duodecimal ratios, which meant quantities were conveniently divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6. But it was difficult to do arithmetic with things like 14 pound or 13 foot. There was no system of notation for successive fractions: for example, 13 of 13 of a foot was not an inch or any other unit. But the system of counting in decimal ratios did have notation, and the system had the algebraic property of multiplicative closure: a fraction of a fraction, or a multiple of a fraction was a quantity in the system, like 110 of 110 which is 1100. So a decimal radix became the ratio between unit sizes of the metric system.

Prefixes for multiples and submultiples

In the metric system, multiples and submultiples of units follow a decimal pattern. [Note 1]

Metric prefixes in everyday use
TextSymbolFactorPower
teraT10000000000001012
gigaG1000000000109
megaM1000000106
kilok1000103
hectoh100102
decada10101
(none)(none)1100
decid0.110−1
centic0.0110−2
millim0.00110−3
microμ0.00000110−6
nanon0.00000000110−9
picop0.00000000000110−12

A common set of decimal-based prefixes that have the effect of multiplication or division by an integer power of ten can be applied to units that are themselves too large or too small for practical use. The concept of using consistent classical (Latin or Greek) names for the prefixes was first proposed in a report by the French Revolutionary Commission on Weights and Measures in May 1793. [3] :89–96 The prefix kilo, for example, is used to multiply the unit by 1000, and the prefix milli is to indicate a one-thousandth part of the unit. Thus the kilogram and kilometre are a thousand grams and metres respectively, and a milligram and millimetre are one thousandth of a gram and metre respectively. These relations can be written symbolically as: [6]

1 mg = 0.001 g
1 km = 1000 m

In the early days, multipliers that were positive powers of ten were given Greek-derived prefixes such as kilo- and mega-, and those that were negative powers of ten were given Latin-derived prefixes such as centi- and milli-. However, 1935 extensions to the prefix system did not follow this convention: the prefixes nano- and micro-, for example have Greek roots. [1] :222–223 During the 19th century the prefix myria-, derived from the Greek word μύριοι (mýrioi), was used as a multiplier for 10000. [7]

When applying prefixes to derived units of area and volume that are expressed in terms of units of length squared or cubed, the square and cube operators are applied to the unit of length including the prefix, as illustrated below. [6]

1 mm2 (square millimetre)= (1 mm)2 = (0.001 m)2 = 0.000001 m2
1 km2 (square kilometre) = (1 km)2= (1000 m)2= 1000000 m2
1 mm3 (cubic millimetre)= (1 mm)3= (0.001 m)3= 0.000000001 m3
1 km3 (cubic kilometre)= (1 km)3= (1000 m)3= 1000000000 m3

Prefixes are not usually used to indicate multiples of a second greater than 1; the non-SI units of minute, hour and day are used instead. On the other hand, prefixes are used for multiples of the non-SI unit of volume, the litre (l, L) such as millilitres (ml). [6]

Coherence

James Clerk Maxwell played a major role in developing the concept of a coherent CGS system and in extending the metric system to include electrical units. James Clerk Maxwell.jpg
James Clerk Maxwell played a major role in developing the concept of a coherent CGS system and in extending the metric system to include electrical units.

Each variant of the metric system has a degree of coherence—the derived units are directly related to the base units without the need for intermediate conversion factors. [8] For example, in a coherent system the units of force, energy and power are chosen so that the equations

force=mass×acceleration
energy=force×distance
energy=power×time

hold without the introduction of unit conversion factors. Once a set of coherent units have been defined, other relationships in physics that use those units will automatically be true. Therefore, Einstein's mass–energy equation, E = mc2, does not require extraneous constants when expressed in coherent units. [9]

The CGS system had two units of energy, the erg that was related to mechanics and the calorie that was related to thermal energy; so only one of them (the erg) could bear a coherent relationship to the base units. Coherence was a design aim of SI, which resulted in only one unit of energy being defined – the joule. [10]

Rationalisation

Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism contained a factor relating to steradians, representative of the fact that electric charges and magnetic fields may be considered to emanate from a point and propagate equally in all directions, i.e. spherically. This factor appeared awkwardly in many equations of physics dealing with the dimensionality of electromagnetism and sometimes other things.

Common metric systems

A number of different metric system have been developed, all using the Mètre des Archives and Kilogramme des Archives (or their descendants) as their base units, but differing in the definitions of the various derived units.

Variants of the metric system
Quantity SI/MKS CGS MTS
distance, displacement,
length, height, etc.
(d, x, l, h, etc.)
metre (m) centimetre (cm)metre
mass (m) kilogram (kg) gram (g) tonne (t)
time (t) second (s)secondsecond
speed, velocity (v, v)m/scm/sm/s
acceleration (a)m/s2 gal (Gal) m/s2
force (F) newton (N) dyne (dyn) sthene (sn)
pressure (P or p) pascal (Pa) barye (Ba) pièze (pz)
energy (E, Q, W) joule (J) erg (erg)kilojoule (kJ)
power (P) watt (W)erg/skilowatt (kW)
viscosity (μ)Pa⋅s poise (P)pz⋅s

Gaussian second and the first mechanical system of units

In 1832, Gauss used the astronomical second as a base unit in defining the gravitation of the earth, and together with the gram and millimetre, became the first system of mechanical units.

Centimetre–gram–second systems

The centimetre–gram–second system of units (CGS) was the first coherent metric system, having been developed in the 1860s and promoted by Maxwell and Thomson. In 1874, this system was formally promoted by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). [11] The system's characteristics are that density is expressed in g/cm3, force expressed in dynes and mechanical energy in ergs. Thermal energy was defined in calories, one calorie being the energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water from 15.5 °C to 16.5 °C. The meeting also recognised two sets of units for electrical and magnetic properties – the electrostatic set of units and the electromagnetic set of units. [12]

The EMU, ESU and Gaussian systems of electrical units

Several systems of electrical units were defined following discovery of Ohm's law in 1824.

International System of Electrical and Magnetic Units

The CGS units of electricity were cumbersome to work with. This was remedied at the 1893 International Electrical Congress held in Chicago by defining the "international" ampere and ohm using definitions based on the metre, kilogram and second. [13]

Other early electromagnetic systems of units

During the same period in which the CGS system was being extended to include electromagnetism, other systems were developed, distinguished by their choice of coherent base unit, including the Practical System of Electric Units, or QES (quad–eleventhgram–second) system, was being used. [14] :268 [15] :17 Here, the base units are the quad, equal to 107 m (approximately a quadrant of the earth's circumference), the eleventhgram, equal to 10−11 g, and the second. These were chosen so that the corresponding electrical units of potential difference, current and resistance had a convenient magnitude.

MKS and MKSA systems

In 1901, Giovanni Giorgi showed that by adding an electrical unit as a fourth base unit, the various anomalies in electromagnetic systems could be resolved. The metre–kilogram–second–coulomb (MKSC) and metre–kilogram–second–ampere (MKSA) systems are examples of such systems. [16]

The International System of Units (Système international d'unités or SI) is the current international standard metric system and is also the system most widely used around the world. It is an extension of Giorgi's MKSA system – its base units are the metre, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, candela and mole. [10] The MKS (metre–kilogram–second) system came into existence in 1889, when artefacts for the metre and kilogram were fabricated according to the Metre Convention. Early in the 20th century, an unspecified electrical unit was added, and the system was called MKSX. When it became apparent that the unit would be the ampere, the system was referred to as the MKSA system, and was the direct predecessor of the SI.

Metre–tonne–second systems

The metre–tonne–second system of units (MTS) was based on the metre, tonne and second – the unit of force was the sthène and the unit of pressure was the pièze. It was invented in France for industrial use and from 1933 to 1955 was used both in France and in the Soviet Union. [17] [18]

Gravitational systems

Gravitational metric systems use the kilogram-force (kilopond) as a base unit of force, with mass measured in a unit known as the hyl, Technische Masseneinheit (TME), mug or metric slug. [19] Although the CGPM passed a resolution in 1901 defining the standard value of acceleration due to gravity to be 980.665 cm/s2, gravitational units are not part of the International System of Units (SI). [20]

International System of Units

The International System of Units is the modern metric system. It is based on the metre–kilogram–second–ampere (MKSA) system of units from early in the 20th century. It also includes numerous coherent derived units for common quantities like power (watt) and irradience (lumen). Electrical units were taken from the International system then in use. Other units like those for energy (joule) were modelled on those from the older CGS system, but scaled to be coherent with MKSA units. Two additional base units, degree Kelvin equivalent to degree Celsius for thermodynamic temperature, and candela, roughly equivalent to the international candle unit of illumination, were introduced. Later, another base unit, the mole, a unit of mass equivalent to Avogadro's number of specified molecules, was added along with several other derived units.

The system was promulgated by the General Conference on Weights and Measures (French: Conférence générale des poids et mesures – CGPM) in 1960. At that time, the metre was redefined in terms of the wavelength of a spectral line of the krypton-86 [Note 2] atom, and the standard metre artefact from 1889 was retired.

Today, the International system of units consists of 7 base units and innumerable coherent derived units including 22 with special names. The last new derived unit, the katal for catalytic activity, was added in 1999. Some of the base units are now realised in terms of invariant constants of physics. As a consequence, the speed of light has now become an exactly defined constant, and defines the metre as 1299,792,458 of the distance light travels in a second. Until 2019, the kilogram was defined by a man-made artefact of deteriorating platinum-iridium. The range of decimal prefixes has been extended to those for 1024, yotta, and 10−24, yocto, which are unfamiliar because nothing in our everyday lives is that big or that small.

The International System of Units has been adopted as the official system of weights and measures by all nations in the world except for Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States, while the United States is the only industrialised country where the metric system is not the predominant system of units. [21]

See also

Notes

  1. Non-SI units for time and plane angle measurement, inherited from existing systems, are an exception to the decimal-multiplier rule
  2. A stable isotope of an inert gas that occurs in undetectable or trace amounts naturally

Related Research Articles

Ampere SI base unit of electric current

The ampere, often shortened to "amp", is the base unit of electric current in the International System of Units (SI). It is named after André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836), French mathematician and physicist, considered the father of electromagnetism.

The centimetre–gram–second system of units is a variant of the metric system based on the centimetre as the unit of length, the gram as the unit of mass, and the second as the unit of time. All CGS mechanical units are unambiguously derived from these three base units, but there are several different ways in which the CGS system was extended to cover electromagnetism.

Kilogram SI unit of mass

The kilogram is the base unit of mass in the International System of Units (SI), the current metric system, having the unit symbol kg. It is a widely used measure in science, engineering and commerce worldwide, and is often simply called a kilo in everyday speech.

Measurement Process of assigning numbers to objects or events

Measurement is the numerical quantitation of the attributes of an object or event, which can be used to compare with other objects or events. The scope and application of measurement are dependent on the context and discipline. In natural sciences and engineering, measurements do not apply to nominal properties of objects or events, which is consistent with the guidelines of the International vocabulary of metrology published by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures. However, in other fields such as statistics as well as the social and behavioural sciences, measurements can have multiple levels, which would include nominal, ordinal, interval and ratio scales.

International System of Units Modern form of the metric system

The International System of Units is the modern form of the metric system. It is the only system of measurement with an official status in nearly every country in the world. It comprises a coherent system of units of measurement starting with seven base units, which are the second, metre, kilogram, ampere, kelvin, mole, and candela. The system allows for an unlimited number of additional units, called derived units, which can always be represented as products of powers of the base units. Twenty-two derived units have been provided with special names and symbols. The seven base units and the 22 derived units with special names and symbols may be used in combination to express other derived units, which are adopted to facilitate measurement of diverse quantities. The SI system also provides twenty prefixes to the unit names and unit symbols that may be used when specifying power-of-ten multiples and sub-multiples of SI units. The SI is intended to be an evolving system; units and prefixes are created and unit definitions are modified through international agreement as the technology of measurement progresses and the precision of measurements improves.

SI base unit One of the seven units of measurement that define the Metric System

The SI base units are the standard units of measurement defined by the International System of Units (SI) for the seven base quantities of what is now known as the International System of Quantities: they are notably a basic set from which all other SI units can be derived. The units and their physical quantities are the second for time, the metre for measurement of length, the kilogram for mass, the ampere for electric current, the kelvin for temperature, the mole for amount of substance, and the candela for luminous intensity. The SI base units are a fundamental part of modern metrology, and thus part of the foundation of modern science and technology.

A metric prefix is a unit prefix that precedes a basic unit of measure to indicate a multiple or submultiple of the unit. All metric prefixes used today are decadic. Each prefix has a unique symbol that is prepended to any unit symbol. The prefix kilo-, for example, may be added to gram to indicate multiplication by one thousand: one kilogram is equal to one thousand grams. The prefix milli-, likewise, may be added to metre to indicate division by one thousand; one millimetre is equal to one thousandth of a metre.

A system of measurement is a collection of units of measurement and rules relating them to each other. Systems of measurement have historically been important, regulated and defined for the purposes of science and commerce. Systems of measurement in use include the International System of Units (SI), the modern form of the metric system, the British imperial system, and the United States customary system.

Units of measurement in France

France has a unique history of units of measurement due to the radical decision to invent and adopt the metric system after the French Revolution.

The foot–pound–second system or FPS system is a system of units built on three fundamental units: the foot for length, the (avoirdupois) pound for either mass or force, and the second for time.

Ohm SI unit of electrical resistance

The ohm is the SI derived unit of electrical resistance, named after German physicist Georg Ohm. Various empirically derived standard units for electrical resistance were developed in connection with early telegraphy practice, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science proposed a unit derived from existing units of mass, length and time, and of a convenient scale for practical work as early as 1861. As of 2020, the definition of the ohm is expressed in terms of the quantum Hall effect.

Grave (unit)

The grave is the unit of mass used in the first metric system which was implemented in France in 1793. In 1795, the grave was renamed as the kilogram.

The MKS system of units is a physical system of measurement that uses the metre, kilogram, and second (MKS) as base units.

The electrostatic system of units (CGS-ESU) is a system of units used to measure quantities of electric charge, electric current, and voltage within the centimeter–gram–second system of metric units. In electrostatic units, electrical charge is defined by the force that it exerts on other charges.

Unit of measurement Definite magnitude of a quantity, defined and adopted by convention or by law, that is used as a standard for measurement of the same kind of quantity

A unit of measurement is a definite magnitude of a quantity, defined and adopted by convention or by law, that is used as a standard for measurement of the same kind of quantity. Any other quantity of that kind can be expressed as a multiple of the unit of measurement. For example, a length is a physical quantity. The metre is a unit of length that represents a definite predetermined length. When we say 10 metres, we actually mean 10 times the definite predetermined length called "metre". Measurement is a process of determining how large or small a physical quantity is as compared to a basic reference quantity of the same kind.

The International System of Electrical and Magnetic Units is an obsolete system of units used for measuring electrical and magnetic quantities. It was proposed as a system of practical international units by unanimous recommendation at the International Electrical Congress, discussed at other Congresses, and finally adopted at the International Conference on Electric Units and Standards in London in 1908. It was rendered obsolete by the inclusion of electromagnetic units in the International System of Units (SI) at the 9th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1948.

2019 redefinition of the SI base units Redefinition of the SI base units kilogram, ampere, kelvin, and mole

In 2019, the SI base units were redefined in agreement with the International System of Quantities, effective on the 144th anniversary of the Metre Convention, 20 May 2019. In the redefinition, four of the seven SI base units – the kilogram, ampere, kelvin, and mole – were redefined by setting exact numerical values for the Planck constant, the elementary electric charge, the Boltzmann constant, and the Avogadro constant, respectively. The second, metre, and candela were already defined by physical constants and were not subject to correction to their definitions. The new definitions aimed to improve the SI without changing the value of any units, ensuring continuity with existing measurements. In November 2018, the 26th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) unanimously approved these changes, which the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) had proposed earlier that year after determining that previously agreed conditions for the change had been met. These conditions were satisfied by a series of experiments that measured the constants to high accuracy relative to the old SI definitions, and were the culmination of decades of research.

History of the metric system

The history of the metric system began during the Age of Enlightenment with measures of length and weight derived from nature, along with their decimal multiples and fractions. The system became the standard of France and Europe within half a century. Other dimensions with unity ratios were added, and the system went on to be adopted across the world.

Outline of the metric system Overview of and topical guide to the metric system

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the metric system – various loosely related systems of measurement that trace their origin to the decimal system of measurement introduced in France during the French Revolution.

Coherence (units of measurement)

A coherent system of units is a system of units, used to measure physical quantities, which are defined in such a way that the equations relating the numerical values expressed in the units of the system have exactly the same form, including numerical factors, as the corresponding equations directly relating the quantities. Equivalently, it is a system in which every quantity has a unique unit, or one that does not use conversion factors.

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